Ministerial approval for a new all-season road to the Dehcho’s Prairie Creek Mine has been delayed to allow further consultation with affected Indigenous groups.

Construction of a 184-km road from the mine site to Highway 7, near the community of Nahanni Butte, received conditional approval from the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board last September – one of the last and biggest steps in the environmental assessment process.

However, the report containing that approval kicked off a series of letters that have culminated in twin delays: the federal government wishes to spend more time in consultation and, simultaneously, is demanding that mining company Canadian Zinc do the same thing.

Local concerns

For the road to be built, the review board’s consent must be followed by written approval from Canada’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. In a letter published to the review board’s registry on January 18, Minister Carolyn Bennett invoked a two-month extension to the deadline for that decision.

In her letter, Bennett says the federal and territorial governments contacted five Indigenous groups in the immediate aftermath of September’s environmental assessment report being published.

Those groups – the Nahanni Butte Dene Band, the Liidlii Kue First Nation, the Dehcho First Nations, the Katlodeeche First Nation, and the Acho Dene Kue First Nation – were asked whether the environmental assessment process had done a good job of addressing concerns First Nations might have about land claims and treaty rights.

Bennett says the responses to that request were so detailed that government agencies now need more time to consult. Her letter pushes the deadline for a ministerial decision back to April 2018.

Adequate answers

At the same time, Canadian Zinc has been ordered by the federal government to do a better job of consulting with the Dehcho’s Indigenous groups before that ministerial decision can be issued.

A separate letter from the same federal department, published on January 19, orders Canadian Zinc to get back in touch with the Nahanni Butte Dene Band, Liidlii Kue First Nation and Dehcho First Nations on several issues. The timeline for issuing ministerial approval will be paused until Canadian Zinc provides answers considered adequate by the department.

The letter demands that Canadian Zinc:

  • do more to factor traditional knowledge into its work;
  • clarify whether it will pay for and conduct an Indigenous knowledge study the company apparently once pledged to produce with the Liidlii Kue First Nation;
  • spend more time talking to Indigenous groups about their request for an independent review of a diversion plan at Sundog Creek;
  • establish exactly how each Indigenous group will be involved in monitoring the project; and
  • discuss with those groups how much funding Canadian Zinc can provide for that monitoring.

Letter to Trudeau

In the wake of September’s environmental assessment report, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Band complained to the Prime Minister that the report provided conditional approval for the all-season road without requiring Canadian Zinc to first sign a land use agreement with the Band.

A month later, in a letter of its own, Canadian Zinc told the federal government it was in “advanced discussions” with the Band over such a land use agreement, and was also hoping to find funding to support the building of a youth centre for the community.

Canadian Zinc goes on to state that traditional knowledge “needs to be provided in a timely manner and with reasonable expectations with respect to involvement in the studies and assessments.”

The mine itself, which sits roughly 100 km northwest of Nahanni Butte inside the Nahanni National Park Reserve, is at an advanced stage of construction. The company says it holds all the permits it needs – other than all-season road approval and permitting – to begin mining zinc, lead and silver.

A report late last year suggested Prairie Creek could earn $1.3 billion over a 15-year mine life, creating 330 full-time jobs in the region. However, building the road and turning the mine operational will require an estimated $279 million in funding from investors before any of that can happen.